Chodrow: Talking Points Memo

In my last column, I introduced the concept of slow thinking, a brand of thought whose quality is bound up in the fact that it is necessarily slow, difficult, and often frustrating. I argued then that deciding what my values are is one mode of slow thinking. In this column, I would like to introduce another.

Last Tuesday evening marked the most recent Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas. The Obama campaign, hoping to raise some cash from the debate publicity, put together a fundraising game for debate-watchers. The game was simple: every time a player heard one of the words on a set list, she or he made a small contribution to the campaign. Words on the list included, “class warfare” (one use in the debate) “9-9-9” (four), and “Obamacare” (fifteen). The game also includes, for each of the words, a “quick rundown on why the GOP candidates use it so frequently.”

The message throughout is that talking-point words like these have become predictable, in their occurrence in debates, their effect on the audience, and their resonances in media. This predictability has come to sap these phrases of substantive meaning—typical fleshings-out of “class warfare,” for instance, are likely to include cliched references to Marxism and socialism, comments on “the American dream,” and so forth. Call this general phenomenon the politicization of language, in which words which claim to articulate matters of common concern become catch-phrases, and thereby come to articulate nothing at all.

How do words come to be politicized? I take the starting point to be a situation in which one party wishes to exert influence on another through words. The “cleanest” case here is that of reasoned persuasion. On the opposite end of the spectrum is rhetorical coercion. Somewhere on this spectrum will fall such things as political debates and speeches, commercial advertisements, news editorials, and so on.

I would suggest that words become politicized when one side (attempts to) exert unilateral control over their meaning. Commercial advertisements might be the best example of this phenomenon. The terms here are rigidly defined; they are the slogans, mottos, and general hype which advertisers hurl. Political debate is another important case. “Obamacare” is an excellent example—aside from President Obama’s recent jab at the phrase, the word is fully controlled by the conservative end of the political class. This has naturally corresponded to an understandable unwillingness by most Democrats and liberals to employ the phrase.

Situations like this give rise to the familiar echo chamber effect. In the former, the chamber is the turf upon which the ad wars are waged. In the latter, the chamber is exemplified by the field of media-directed politics—Fox News is perhaps the most familiar exemplar. In each case, words find themselves bouncing back and forth in a void, without much reflection on their meaning or value. This vacuum chamber is the natural environment in which words become politicized, their employments growing so formulaic as to lose what sense they might have had.

If I am correct in my suggestion that the politicization of words arises when a group attempts to exert uncontested control over their meaning, then those words which are (relatively) unpoliticized are those in whose meanings we all maintain some kind of deliberative stake. “Justice” might be one such word—its very ambiguity, often so troubling, suggests that no one wields full control over its meaning, and that each of us might therefore find ourselves laying some claim to it, small or large. The words which still carry contentious public meaning for us, then, are the words that require various degrees of interpretation from their hearers.

Constructive conversations about matters of value simply cannot happen quickly, because the sheer task of interpreting another person’s words, such as “justice,” is immensely difficult and intrinsically slow. It requires trying on possibilities, reflecting on commitments and interests, and, above all, understanding another human being. The thought that we can accomplish this understanding quickly only makes sense on the assumption that the meanings of the words that person is offering us are fixed, there for us to discover but not determine. This assumption, I hope to have shown, is a symptom of the politicization of language. In effect, it removes us from the community of people for whom those words can carry weight, and thereby turns our interlocutor into a fixed entity, to be attacked or defended, rather than a source of meaning to be understood.

In sum, when disagreement or disharmony arises between two or more people, the task of understanding each other is a brand of slow thinking. If the deliberation on value I discussed last week is the “subjective” or “deliberative” side of slow thinking, then understanding another will be the “intersubjective” or “interpretive” side. There is a fundamental unity to these two brands of slow thinking, for both are about understanding a person. To interpret another is to come to understand them; to reach a reflective conclusion on value is to understand oneself. My thesis in these two columns has been that each kind of understanding is intrinsically difficult, often frustrating, and, above all, not to be rushed. One who hurries here will find herself with a superficial view of self and other, and eventually find herself in a superficial world.

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